Putting Urban Legends to Rest: What Chester Crocker Actually Said About Zimbabwe in 2001
The urban legend has former Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker saying to Congress at a hearing in June 2001, “To separate the Zimbabwean people from Zanu-PF, we are going to have to make their economy scream, and I hope you, senators, have the stomach for what you have to do.”
The problem with this statement is, Crocker never said any such thing. Following is the transcript of his testimony, and I defy readers to even intuit such a statement from it.
STATEMENTS OF CHESTER CROCKER, PROFESSOR, INSTITUTE FOR THE
STUDY OF DIPLOMACY, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
Mr. Crocker. Thank you very much, Chairman Royce. Good to
be back here with you and your colleagues.
There has been a lot said about the trends and the facts on
the ground and there is a lot more that will be said by
colleagues on this panel and I do not want to spend a lot of
time on that, maybe focus a little bit more on what we can do,
what realistically are the options that we face. But just a few
observations, and I have given you a written statement, as
well, but just a few observations on the trend lines.
I have been a frequent visitor to Zimbabwe for the past 33
years and first went there at a time when it was also a
troubled country, in the midst of its liberation struggle
against minority rule, and I have been many times since.
Zimbabwe has often seemed a troubled place. Right after
independence there was a period of real troubles when many
people lost their lives. ZANU-PF was consolidating its monopoly
of political control.
So we have often seen Zimbabwe as a place, I think, where
there were the trappings of a democratic system but behind that
facade, if you will, there was the arbitrary use of official
power, as much official power as was needed to maintain a
monopoly of control, an uneven playing field for opposition and
resort to the tactics of intimidation.
But until the late 1990’s, and is my first point that I
would like to underscore, Mr. Chairman, these practices
remained within certain limits, maybe, in part, because only
recently has the opposition really found its feet. But in any
case, I think we are seeing quite a different situation today
in terms of the patterns of intimidation and abuse.
This is a dramatic situation now in Zimbabwe. We are 10
days away from one of the most important elections in modern
African history. As has been noted, the opposition will run in
every constituency. Thousands of observers will be there from a
wide range of local and foreign institutions.
There is excitement in the air in the country politically
because the constitutional referendum process demonstrated that
there really is competition in Zimbabwe. At least there is
competition when it is permitted.
The upcoming election is taking place against a widespread
campaign of government-sanctioned and sponsored violence whose
dimensions, I think, are generally pretty well known.
I would like to underscore something you said, Mr.
Chairman. One stands in awe at the courage and conviction of
unarmed oppositionists who are trying to compete in the
political process against a government which is playing by
other rules, other rules altogether, and these leaders in the
opposition have come together from a wide range of
backgrounds–the union movement, the educational profession,
the law, journalism, human rights advocacy, women’s groups, and
so forth, united in the belief that it is possible for Zimbabwe
to have peaceful, democratic change. Yet we know how much of an
uphill struggle this is.
This need not have happened in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is a
place, Mr. Chairman, which has many things going for it in
terms of its resources, human and physical, in terms of the
strength of its industrial economy, its commercial agriculture,
which, until recently, has been a key source of regional
dynamism, making Zimbabwe a significant commodity and food
exporter and a key economic partner for all the countries of
I would also say that the leadership in Zimbabwe over the
years has not been all on the negative side. This is not a
country which has been for the last 20 years governed the way
it is being governed today.
Something has cracked. Something has gone wrong. Something
has gone badly off the tracks. This is a government which, at
times in the past, has been a constructive member of a regional
community. No longer. No longer the case.
So those legacies have gone out the window and Zimbabwe’s
policies of the past of pragmatism and reconciliation and
regional cooperation have been replaced by the political of
greedy adventurism in the region, most notably in the Congo,
and the politics of envy and racial scapegoating at home.
The real problem, no matter what the government officials
may say, the real problems are of their own making. This is not
about land ownership. It is not about colonial legacies. It is
not about the role of white farmers. It is about power. It is
really about power and that is the long and the short of it.
The primary challenge in terms of power is coming from black
Zimbabweans and I think we have heard that already this morning
from Morgan Tsvangirai and his colleagues. Everything else is
pure cover story–the playing of racial cards by an embattled
The sad part of all this to me, Mr. Chairman, is that this
is not the way Robert Mugabe started out his political career.
It is not the way he was for much of the past 20 years. He has
made contributions to his country’s history and that of the
region. While I have often differed with him, I have respected
him as a man of substance, intelligence, and deep conviction.
It is very sad to witness his fears of losing office crowd out
those other qualities.
So we have a drama. This could be an implosion with broad
regional implications far beyond those of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe
affects an entire region. It is at the hub of an entire region.
It is the Southern African region’s second most important
player in many ways, both political and economic.
So I think we have a lot at stake. This is about our
principles and our interests in Zimbabwe, but it is also about
Africa and Southern Africa quite specifically.
Just to give one example, the South African currency has
gone down 10 to 15 percent in the past few months because of
Zimbabwe. It is as simple as that and there is no other
explanation for the performance of the rand. I know there are
people who try to give other explanations but that is my
What are we doing about it? My impression is that we are
wringing our hands. We are hoping South Africans will rescue
the situation. We are doing what we can to strengthen the
democratic process and I applaud everything that we are doing
as a government–executive branch, Congress, and NGO’s, which
are playing the lead role–to try somehow and make this as
democratic an election as it can be. But we are not doing a
whole lot beyond that to shape events, either by ourselves or
with our partners in Africa and Europe. I would suggest to you
that things have deteriorated badly. There are not any really
attractive options left before us.
But there are two broad avenues we could consider. Of
course, we do not know how the election will come out. It is
possible that the election will come out better than we think,
that the playing field will be more level than we think, and
that the opposition will come out better than the worst case
analyses have led us to believe. It is possible and we do not
want to prejudge that result.
It may also be that the opposition would be very pleased,
thank you very much, if they win 50 seats, even if they know in
their heart of hearts that they could have won 90 and therefore
they will say, “Look, is the glass half empty or is it half
full?” We have to be a little careful, I think, in deciding
ahead of time what is an acceptable outcome because it is for
the people of Zimbabwe even in these difficult circumstances to
But I am not going to bet on an outcome as good as the one
I have just been talking about. If I were a betting man, I
would not bet on that kind of outcome. I would bet this
election is going to go south and that it is going to be
substantially robbed. I am afraid that is the case. I wish it
were not the case.
So under one scenario, if that is indeed what happens, we
have the possibility, I suppose, assuming that violent
intimidation and police state tactics work, of deciding, “Do
we engage with this leadership, warts and all, or not?” And by
engage, I do not mean writing checks for them. I mean using
every element of our actual and potential leverage to try to
pull them back from the edge of this self-destructive orgy they
are now in, and that will not be easy to do and it will not be
pretty to watch, but I think we do have leverage we have not
really used that perhaps could get through in a post-election
environment. The goal would be to salvage a regionally
dangerous situation and move the country’s leadership back
within the pale of minimally acceptable conduct.
This will not be easy, given our political values and our
deep commitment to those values, to engage with a group like
this, but it might be better to do that than to resort to the
kind of petulant self-isolating ostracism which we are all too
frequently applying around the world today and isolating
The second option, and I speak very candidly, is to work
through all appropriate channels for a change in power in
Zimbabwe, recognizing that perhaps it is destined to become
Africa’s Romania and that Mugabe is destined to become Africa’s
Ceausescu. It was, though, even in Romania, the people of
Romania who made the change ultimately, not Americans.
So if we were to decide to try and work for change in power
in Zimbabwe, I would hope that we would have the wisdom to be
discrete, to be low-key and to avoid giving those in power
there the excuse that foreigners are out to get them.
We would treat Zimbabwe basically like a pariah under this
option. We would disengage from official government-to-
government relationships, programming of any sort, and wait for
the pressures to mount, helping them along as best we can.
Under either approach, we must recognize that we are only
one country and that we should be in careful, practical and
detailed consultations with the South Africans, with the
Zambians, with the Mozambiquans and above all, with the
British, who know this place and have more influence there than
So I hope that our current penchant around the world for
what I would call sloppy unilateralism can be brought under
some semblance of control and that we can actually figure out
how to work with key players in the region who also have
interests at stake in Zimbabwe. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
For a look at the entire hearing, go to:
This is how urban legends get started; someone fabricates a piece of news and it gets repeated enough that people start believing it. Well, let’s hope this is one urban legend that can be put to rest.